Blue light? Red light.

Yesterday afternoon this tweet [screengrab above, in case it gets deleted] popped into my stream, as a result of a RT from a friend. This friend has thousands of followers, and tends to pick content with care, so it caught my eye.

I’ve been interested in this type of message for a long time now. I wrote a piece over three years ago about the consequences of asking people, en masse, to amplify a lost person message – along with some suggestions on safeguards that might help us hang to some of the benefits but minimise wasted time and miscommunication.

I took a closer look at the account behind this tweet, @policeuk, because of its name. UK policing is one of those sectors that has its own .uk domain (like nhs.uk, mod.uk etc). In the case of the police, the website Police.UK has a highly distinctive branding as a primary source of official crime and policing information online.

So, not unreasonably, I concluded that @policeuk was so similar to the “official” brand as to be of genuine concern.

What is the @policeuk account? It claims to be a “Breaking news” feed – amplifying stories related to policing. Nothing wrong with that by itself. There are tons of accounts doing similar things. Good luck to them. But the weight given by “RT @policeuk…” seems to be a pretty powerful accelerant. That tweet’s currently had over 1,200 RTs.

Sadly, in this case, it was all too late. A body had been found, but no update or clarification had followed. That’s bad. Perhaps worse, a few hours before this tweet was sent, the real police had issued a press release asking the public not to get involved in search activity, adding to the irresponsibility of this tweet. (Yes, that’s right, that link 404s. Humberside have clearly adopted the Argyll & Bute school of media handling. For their full press release archive, try here. Oh, wait…)

Anyway, the RTing continued uncontrollably…

Back to the @policeuk account. Its output is pretty odd. There are links to random news stories which may or may not be “police”-related. (Most news stories, are of course, in one way of another). But there’s also some weird stuff asking followers to comment on The Sun and Those Nude Harry Pics. [Update 28 Aug: this tweet has since been deleted]

And perhaps oddest of all is the account bio: #AntiWinsorNetwork we are not associated with the police in any way shape or form. tweets by @gonzomedia [NB. that disassociation statement was added after I started making noises about the account yesterday]

AntiWinsorNetwork? Wossat then? As far as I’ve established, it’s a grass roots policing community campaigning brand that arose at the time of the Winsor review into police pay and conditions.

Read that bio again: “we use the tag of a policing-related campaign, but have no connection…” er, m’kay…

And who are @gonzomedia? A self-proclaimed media organisation – with a website that doesn’t work. Hmm. They’re not this GonzoMedia, anyway.

So is this really worth making a fuss about? Some worthless content gets RTd a lot? Lots of people waste lots of time on the internet? That’s hardly news. And it’s not going to be stopped by a few whiny tweets and a blog post.

Except this one really is a problem. There’s a definite quality-by-association issue. This is the gem of a “retraction” that was finally published:

And is it beyond the realms of possibility that @policeuk could become recognised as a twitter brand that people start to turn to for help, or to report Serious Things? I think it’s highly possible. And that would be criminal.

If the GonzoMedia(.co.uk) people really want to build their brand using like this, I suggest:

  • change the account name to avoid the “PoliceUK” formulation
  • put something along the lines of NewsFeed into the account name
  • take the word “Police” off the account profile picture (and preferably the pseudo-emergency-services design)
  • either lose the hashtag or the claim that the account isn’t police-related from the bio – both together are incoherent
  • [optional] have some sort of content strategy, and quality control
  • And if they don’t do these things, I fully expect the Home Office, ACPO, NPIA, or any of a number of other relevant organisations (who are all now aware of this issue) to have it taken down sharpish. I haven’t got going on the Facebook page, but it’s going to need similar scrutiny.

    It’s not a question of free speech.

    It’s much more important than that. [pace Shankly]


    Update 28 Aug, 8am

    I see that during the night @policeuk/Breaking News (Police) announced its demise*. Well, not quite. It announced on Twitter that it wasn’t tweeting any more, because of my post. And on Facebook it did the same, but went a bit further and invited its contacts to give their opinions on whether it should stay or not. (The comments make fascinating reading.)

    Personally, I’m saddened. I had no idea they’d suffered “5 days of constant abuse and campaigns” by trolls. After all, I only spotted the account about 5pm on Sunday afternoon. Whoever gave them the other 3½ days of grief should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves!

    Read this slowly, Facebook visitors and other newcomers: there is no trolling. There is no abuse. There is a bit of gentle piss-taking, because this is the internet.

    And there is a challenge to its branding, based solely on the way the word “police” is being used, with some clear suggestions on what it could do to fix this and carry on exactly as it has been. I also suggest that if it chooses not to, it’s very likely to attract official interest. Pointing those things out is not “trolling“.

    Oh, I’ve just noticed the Facebook URL. facebook.com/policeuk? No, I don’t think so. That should go too. I’m sure NPIA have an eye on this one too now.

    If you are now desperately missing real police output, can I suggest you go and find your local force page? They look like this. Or a Twitter account like this? The latter all have, or should have, a blue tick indicating they are genuine. Or go and get your newsy fix from, well, a real news organisation. There are plenty about. They have (mostly) responsible approaches to reporting, fact-checking, timely coverage and that sort of stuff. And if you want to bellyache about coppers with like-minded people, you’ll find a space.

    (Interestingly, having seen some references in those comments, it seems the same outfit is responsible for Breaking News Teesside. Fine. No problems with that. It seems hugely popular. It’s giving people a space to talk [cough] about local Newsy things. It’s another thing that the internet is there for. So it’s not like they don’t know how to do this.)

    And if all those are too official, or propaganda-ish, do please set up your own bear-pit online space. Just don’t put “police” in the name.

    All clear?

    *if visiting from a Facebook link, this means “end”.


    A final update: 29 Aug, 11am

    Well, there we are. After a whole 24 hours** of flouncing and muting, they’re back. Not sure who these “haters” are, to be honest. Critics, well, that’s a different matter.

    Now, is this my problem? Nah. I suspect there are quite a few within the policing community who are now taking a good look at the branding issues involved. Over to them. I will await with interest what happens, and will post any updates here.

    I guess there are some for whom an issue like this could become an overwhelming, illiberal, ranting crusade. But I’m not one of them.

    **though in the compressed timescales of the guy behind these, he probably thinks he put his toys down for at least a month.


    Really, really final update: 11pm

    Fascinating link from February 2012, from the Mirror. Read it for yourselves. But note that even a national newspaper (ok, not the brightest, but hey) said: “they wormed their way into a police Twitter account…” Well. That looks like form, as they say. And perhaps a piece of evidence to support what the case set out above. They were hacked, they say. Yeah, yeah, tell that to the judge.

    Tower Bridge has fallen down

    It’s so sad to see that one of the iconic London Twitter accounts, @towerbridge, has been grabbed claimed by a marketing outfit promoting the Tower Bridge Exhibition. It’s not so much the fact of the grabbing claiming–in a world where you don’t pay for membership, your rights are always going to be rather flimsy–but the manner of the switchover, facilitated by Twitter.

    No notice (see update below), no courtesy, no archiving. Just taken, changed, and the new “owners” no doubt hoping it will all just slip by unnoticed. Bad luck.

    Because people loved that account. Quite a lot of early adopting, influential, internet-savvy people, I suspect. The hashtag #givetowerbridgeback has already sprung up, and as I write, it’s gathering pace.

    The old account, put together as an automated bit of fun by @infovore was not only whimsically, Britishly, entertaining, it also had its own rhythmic beauty–a heartbeat for the river, in some ways. It would tweet when it opened, and for which vessel, and when it closed. Open, shut. Open, shut.

    Tom Armitage tells the story here about its creation, and sudden demise.

    It provoked the ire of its neighbour @imlondonbridge and the resulting tussle made the columns of the Telegraph–spinning out into a whole meme about London landmarks setting up Twitter accounts to bitch about each other. (Confession: I briefly ran a foul-mouthed skyscraper which got soundly told off by an ancient stone.)

    It attracted comment in the last meeting of the Mayor of London’s Digital Advisory Board, with delight voiced from the Mayor’s top-level team that such things were going on in London.

    And they aren’t now. Just like that.

    There’s form here: a couple of years ago I was approached by a candidate for one of London’s oldest ceremonial roles to contribute some ideas on how social media might have a part to play were he to come into office. Very progressive for an 800 year old institution, really.

    I set up a Twitter account, ready for use at the right time. Sure enough, a few months back, I noticed that it had been taken into new ownership, and now sits as a blank account with zero activity and no profile picture. I’m sure it’s “official”, but that’s not really the point. It would have been nice if someone had let me know.

    I let it go, but seeing what happened today, I thought I’d mention it. I won’t name it as this post is about Tower Bridge. It’s not something that came to be anyway, but it’s fairly easy to work out what it was.

    Make a fuss, a small, polite, British fuss, about this one, if you will.

    It’s not the way things should be done.

    And information revolution or no information revolution, etiquette still matters.

    UPDATE: 13 June

    Tom has posted some more information: he had been contacted by Twitter, but hadn’t seen the email. There still seem to be some technical questions about the detail of the “trademark” claims, but the communication picture from Twitter doesn’t look as bad as originally painted.

    Wake up Wikipedia – it’s NOW

    I am probably at the bottom end of the interest scale for World Cup matters. But I do try and spot an opportunity to make people’s lives easier, if it can be done with little effort.

    I also do the odd Wikipedia edit – nothing serious, mainly adding a few photos here and there. So when I spotted the question “what’s the hashtag for the World Cup?” a few times, I thought I’d try something, mainly by way of experiment.

    Bringing the worlds of reference orthodoxy and real-time together, by adding a line to the Wikipedia World Cup page: “The tag[defined] in most active use to identify content and discussion about the tournament on Twitter[defined] is #wc2010.”

    It lasted 9 minutes. Then removed as being ‘unencyclopedic’. Yes. I understand what that means, and have no gripe with the Wikipedian who wielded the axe. But it raises an interesting question of policy – as real-time information becomes more than a nice-to-have and moves, through expectation, to necessity. Should Wikipedia change its stance in areas like this? Or will its insistence on citation standards for everything begin to erode its relevance in the long term?

    Why does Twitter unfollow people?

    It’s happened to me. And to lots of people I know. It might have happened to you. (A hundred anecdotes make evidence, naturally. Here’s a live search link. See for yourself. Maybe. It’s real-time.)

    You find out one day that you’re not following someone you know you used to follow. And you’re dead sure you didn’t do it yourself. Either you or they have spotted the omission on a list, or they’ve tried to send a DM and failed. They might let you know about it. They might not. The relationship gets reinstated. Or it doesn’t. Life goes on.

    So is this cock-up or conspiracy? A bug in the system that lets people slip through the cracks like this?

    I don’t think it’s a bug at all, but a feature. A piece of very clever social design. Here’s why.

    Real relationships aren’t binary. They’re analogue. You can like someone not at all, a bit, or a lot. That can change from day to day – sometimes from hour to hour. Independently of how much you like them there are other factors involved like distance and frequency of contact. You might adore each other but only communicate once a year.

    Social networks can (so far) only provide the palest echo of this rich texture. You’re either someone’s Facebook friend, or you’re not. Twitter’s a bit more subtle in its branding of the relationship, but we’re humans. We’re tempted to attach emotional significance to everything to some degree. Unfollow me? You mustn’t like me any more. I’m sad. I don’t enjoy this experience much. Best keep away from it.

    And to those who do the unfollowing and reap more than they bargained for, this brings its own problems. Retaliation. Icy silence. Worse. People will interpret the same fact in countless different ways. We don’t all operate according to the same textbook of emotional responses (mercifully).

    So if you’re a savvy social designer, you want to design out the sadness and badness where you can. You want to keep your community happy. You want to keep your community there. So you need loopholes. Get-outs. And you quietly introduce a random unfollow ‘bug’. Just a small one. Perhaps 0.1% of relationships ‘accidentally’ broken in a month. Not enough to reduce confidence in the integrity of the system.

    But enough to offer a face-saver to the unfollower. And a hope-giver to the unfollowed.


    As with social networks, it’s all about the feelings. Black and white? Bad. Fuzzy? Much better.

    (Actually, the real reason is because they’ve blocked and unblocked you. The social equivalent of an untraceable poison–now take the hint and piss off out of their life.)

    Twitter, Tweetie & Atebits: the conspiracy theory

    A few months ago, Atebits, the developers of the then-awesome Tweetie client for Twitter, did what seemed to be a strange thing.

    The upgrade from v2.0 to v2.1 of the iPhone app removed the ability for a user to continue with ‘old-style’ retweeting (formatting a tweet with RT…followed by the original tweet).

    In response, Atebits parroted a line from Twitter about how the world was changing and Twitter’s new-style retweeting function was far better.

    A strange case of user wishes – to at least have the choice of styling their usage in the way they preferred – being overriden in favour of a corporate stance put out by an unconnected company.

    Though I made a bit of noise about it at the time, as did a few others, nothing changed. I stuck with 2.0 for a while, then switched to Echofon. Which has got rather better than Tweetie in the meantime, in the way that products tend to leapfrog each other.

    So. Is the news yesterday of Atebits’ acquisition by Twitter a vindication of a long-term strategy to crawl up Ev’s rear entrance, a reward for being a good parrot, or just plain luck? :)

    Why #fixtweetie is important

    Firstly, it’s not about fixing one iPhone app. Sure, Tweetie was my favourite iPhone Twitter client. But there are others. And that’s the point of the apps ecosystem: if you don’t like one any more, you go and find another one. I’d paid for it, but it’s not the three quid either that makes it important.

    This is why.

    Go back to an original, pure concept of Twitter. A great big cloud of 140 character tweets. You can do anything you like with those characters. And those tweets; using a range of Twitter clients (note: all, apart from Twitter’s own web client at Twitter.com, are independent products). The clients help you filter down the bits of the cloud that you want to see.

    Add some conventions: that a word preceded by @ is a user name, and a word preceded by # is a way of labelling content that can then be easily linked together. Importantly, these conventions could have been generated from the user community. Other conventions, like the use of the slash ‘/’ (as in /via) – are in their infancy. “Slashtags”. Love that. With a little ingenuity, other character-based syntax conventions could emerge: ^zipcode, to make up an example.

    If the convention is picked up and adopted, great. That’s evolution. Everyone’s happy. In time those client applications can be tweaked to get greater value out of the convention (just as most now automatically return search results based on clicking a hashtag).

    Twitter does of course do more than just host a big cloud of tweets. They save you the bother of creating a register in your own client application of the users from whom you are interested in seeing tweets. Though this is theoretically possible, it would be a pain each time you changed client (or switched from PC to mobile device) having to synchronise those lists.

    So Twitter helps you, by running some basic user registration functions, including the ability to create a record of those you follow. Because these registered user identities live within Twitter’s domain, they can also support some other functions, like direct messaging, blocking and so on.

    And lately, they can be assembled into ‘lists’, which also live alongside your profile, in Twitterland.

    And the last thing that Twitter do is make pretty much all of the above information freely available to be sucked out and interpreted by these aforementioned client applications, through an API (a way of easily getting information out of Twitterland to do clever things with it).

    The last big rumble in the Twungle was when Twitter tweaked the API so that instead of being able to see all tweets emanating from a user, you’d only see their @replies if you were also following the user they were @replying to. Although this definitely makes for a neater way of seeing content, there were some benefits to occasionally viewing an entirely unfiltered stream of information (such as a serendipitous comment from someone you followed to someone you’d never heard of, which might prompt a conversation with them). Yada yada yada.

    Some, like me, argued that this was a violation of the ‘purity’ of the information; it would be perfectly easy for your client application to make that @reply filtering choice for you, assuming it could be supplied with the “whole picture”; but Twitter decided to take away that choice. The whole argument was captured on the hashtag #fixreplies.

    Taking away choice = bad, IMHO.

    But never before did Twitter cross the line into specifying what format those 140 characters might take (other than some forays into metadata – already used in any case for datestamps, client application identifiers, and so on – and latterly for geocoding). But the way the core 140 characters worked? No, that was up to you. If you wanted to put RT… at the start of your tweets, good on ya.

    That’s changed with the new RT feature. Read the Twitter line here: (as reposted by @atebits – Tweetie’s makers).

    Interesting. Yes, another play on cleaning up your stream – as with #fixreplies. But what’s all this stuff about ‘dictating’ etiquette? What happened to the evolutionary adoption of things that worked? Surely if a long stream of identical tweets was annoying, client applications would evolve that could suppress these at the client. Even I could code that… And if they weren’t identical? Well, that would be because people put in little personal comments along the way with their RTs. So you’d lose those, obviously. (Or have to throw them away depending on how you tuned your duplicate tweet suppression on the client.)

    So perhaps this is all a bit of misdirection. Instead of focusing on just how helpful the new RT format is, try working out for yourself what’s really behind new RTs. It shouldn’t take long.

    And the fact that hooey like that post from @ev gets bandied about, instead of the honest answer about Twitter’s move into content shaping (and it won’t be the last one), is why I felt strongly about #fixtweetie*, and why this has become a blog post.

    So, did you get there? Hear the jingling dollars? And as Dan Moon wisely points out – we can’t overlook that Twitter is a business. Of course they can impose content parameters and design controls if they want. If we don’t like it we can all go back to, erm, Facebook and MSN. Or the Next Big Thing (am working on that…he he).

    I’d just ask for a little more transparency about all this – saying “it’s a nicer experience” doesn’t really cut it for me. What do you think?

    *a hashtag I began in order to argue that client apps should allow the user as much choice as possible in the formatting of their tweets, so that etiquette could continue to evolve, rather than be imposed.

    #tweetbike – the last word (for now)

    or what this social experiment was actually about…

    What was #tweetbike?

    The scene-setting post is here – but briefly, it was a last-minute experiment in real-time, self-organising social travel during a time of disruption. I monitored, and updated, the #tweetbike [you need to sign in to see the tweet stream, sorry] hashtag to see how well an impromptu, free biketaxi service would work during the Tube strike.

    Why did I do it?

    Twitter feels like it’s itching to be used for practical applications. There are a lot of ‘novelty’ information utilities there, along with quite a few bits of ‘usefulness’ (but they mostly tend to be using Twitter’s promotional ability to virally communicate). But you can’t get much more practical than a dirty great motorbike turning up at your door when you ask for it ;-).

    Why did I really do it?

    To have a laugh for a couple of days and indulge my love of randomness. A mash-up of a traffic-busting vehicle and a social network is pretty random… And no one had tried it before.

    OK, really, really?

    To understand more about, and share, what makes a real-world, real-time social utility viable, trustable, and sustainable.

    The experience in words (I’ve put some pictures here)

    A slow start on Wednesday, trawling up the A23, stopping every few minutes from Croydon onwards to tweet my location (discovering at Clapham that the GPS needed a manual nudge to update it – leading to some comments that I’d travelled five miles in what seemed like five minutes. *cough cough*…). One early taker from Tooting decided at the last minute to work from home, and I’d just missed intercepting the gallant @guyker in Fulham by a few minutes as he headed for his bus, even though he was very much up for it.

    Headed west to follow the route of the Northern Line; ignorant – until @racarter told me – that it was still running. Doh! But then so were many of its usual passengers, judging by the queues at the bus stops. Still no takers. All the way to Clerkenwell to get the pre-booked, urbane and very chilled @heathtully who clung on as we navigated a horrendously blocked-up Commercial Rd to get to Tower Hill. Then another lull; even what must have been thousands of people at Liverpool St weren’t biting. But things slowly picked up, with a series of bookings already coming in for a little later in the day.

    With a bit of juggling, and not too many disappointments, I managed to draw up a continuous schedule; Victoria to Charing Cross; Marylebone to Farringdon; Shepherd’s Bush to Clerkenwell; Charing Cross to Paddington; LJOTD, as @cabbiescapital might say, Kennington to Clapham; (if you know of a way that I could have tracked this ‘trail’ on the map, do let me know!) Needed to be back at home to take over childcare at 18.30, so inevitably disappointed a few hopefuls for the run home. Including the mission to pick up a wedding ring – now that was a worthy cause! But in the late afternoon things were definitely swinging.

    The tweet profile throughout the day was interesting, and worth a look (via the #tweetbike stream). Early burst of retweets announcing the service got things moving, and whenever I gave a very real-time operational update, e.g. “at Holborn Circus, heading west in 5 minutes if I don’t get any takers”, this would also prompt a bit of ‘operational’ retweeting. But gradually, as the story became better known, the ‘story’ tweets and retweets began to dominate. When the audioboo went up, and later that night, the BBC Online story (erm, thanks, Daren), the channel became all about the story, not the operation.

    The next day – although I’d deliberately not announced it in advance, I threw open the virtual doors again to any takers after lunch. I’d tried a couple of things in the morning; firstly, swapping to the noisier and more glamorous #tweetbikeextreme for a bit more fun (and recognising that with Twitter’s lightning-fast product cycles, 24 hours without some brand and product diversification really wasn’t on…) but more seriously, trying to warm up the message that #tweetbike wasn’t actually me, or my bike, but a concept.

    You can create hashtags, but you don’t own them – and with my tweets I was pushing the idea a little more that any public-spirited biker might also want to join in and have a bit of fun giving a lift here and there. The channel was open for anyone to use, consumer or supplier. But no takers, which was interesting, but perhaps not that surprising ;-)

    So, there I was in town, fuelled by a delightful lunch with @tiffanystjames, wanting to see just how spontaneously such a service could spring up again, as another test. By this time, most of the tweets were retweets of the various online news stories and blogs that had sprung up. General agreement that it was a great idea, but very little in the way of actual takers. One brave chap, @handlewithcare, had asked for a lift earlier in the day. So he got one. That was one of the points I was testing – if a service, even as sketchy and notional as this one was, existed, what would it take to get people to actually seek it out?

    End of Thursday, home, knackered, dirty, with a grin a mile wide.

    Analysis (I over-analyse by habit, so this is abbreviated…I will discuss more on any point if you comment!)

    Twitter likes a ‘story’ so much that perhaps operational services could always get overshadowed.

    – The lifecycle of interest makes a mayfly look like Methuselah.

    – Not commercially viable (at the moment). Even with a strike on and no charge, the big interest was beginning and end of day, not round town during it.

    Logistics: although a ‘handler’ for the messages would have been nice, it wasn’t actually as hard as I’d thought to coordinate a schedule. I arrived at every pick-up to the minute, if not a few minutes early. I’d love to know how this would have changed if other #tweetbikes were operating, but didn’t get the chance to find out.

    Trust: amazing. I remember a conversation in 2003 where I swore blind that anybody who used eBay was insane (I hadn’t quite cottoned-on to the concept of community reputation: let’s just say I’ve been on something of a journey since then…). Whatever reputational capital I have through my Twitter profile was clearly enough to reassure my passengers that I wasn’t going to eat them. Or that if I did, I’d soon be found out…

    Sustainable? Probably not. Twitter channels that appear suddenly seem to be promoted initially, enjoyed for a while, then tolerated, perhaps then suspected, and eventually can become an irritant. Sometimes this progression can take as long as, oh, 12 hours… Yes, I think I did get a comment at some stage using the phrase ‘show-off’, and though that’s probably fair :-), it’s always a balance that’s needing to be struck in a medium as fertile and volatile as this one.

    What did I find that I didn’t know before?

    It’s really hard to tweet while riding a motorbike [joke].

    It is actually possible to update a GPS position safely at the traffic lights.

    Predicting travel time on a motorbike in London is easier than you think.

    Very real-time, spontaneous decisions didn’t happen. People needed time to plan and adapt their travel plans.

    I thought I might need to go into detail on some of the etiquette involved in asking people to use the # channel sensibly; to look at existing bookings and manage their own requests accordingly; to respect the order of requests put in, even though I was still riding and hadn’t managed to respond, and so on, but I didn’t. Self-organisation does, I think, work extremely well. Would love to test this with more riders and passengers…

    You’ll always need more power than you think. Thanks to @coigovuk for the quick top-up at 4pm.

    Sitting on a motorbike all day in leathers gives you a really sore arse.

    Invitations on the street to non-twitterers. Not a hope. Really very likely to get you arrested. Don’t go there. Sorry, lady-at-Paddington, who stopped to ask me directions. You can certainly run fast, can’t you?

    I can’t disagree with a word of this very well-put analysis


    The #tweetbike – a 2004 Yamaha Supermoto XT660-X. 45 horsepower, single cylinder, grunty dirt/track hybrid. Aftermarket Carbon Cans exhaust to let ’em know you’re coming…

    The #tweetbikeextreme – 2009 version of the same. Spec as above, but with Carbon Cans stubby carbon fibre kit to let neighbouring planets know you’re on your way.

    Pillion kit. Hein Gericke overjacket and lovely supermoto gloves rammed inside an Arai helmet enclosed by a helmet bag (which virtually garroted me as I carried it – another learning point there!).

    Legality. I’m insured to carry non-paying pillion passengers. (Though nobody actually asked or checked…) This was all completely legal, and as it wasn’t for commercial gain, didn’t fall foul of the taxi licensing authorities either. Quite how the Twitter stream would have played in court is a matter of debate…

    Camera – EOS 40D dSLR. Complete waste of time as I only took about 5 pics with it and still managed to drop it, busting a rather pricey lens. :-(

    GPS/phone/mobile internet. Battered and somewhat ancient O2 XDA Orbit. The experience finished off the phone, which died completely on Saturday.

    GPS/cell tracking. Inspired by @Whateleya, driven by Google Latitude and using a piece of bodged-together code hosted on a free website.

    Inspiration: community-minded people like @lloyddavis, @ivoivo and @robertloch who are slowly teaching me that the strangest things are possible if you give them a go… and @treefroggirl for a chance comment the day before that helped me crystallise a few existing thoughts.

    Self-appointed PR and marketing busybody: @darenBBC :-) with added contributions from @helenjbeckett

    Lovely, intelligent and accurate write-up: @jemimah_knight from @bbc_HaveYourSay

    Tea: @alex_butler and @tiffanystjames at @digigov.

    Amazingly trusting passengers: @heathtully, @katiemoffat, @lisadevaney, @lexij (twice!), @pocketsons, @tiffanystjames, @handlewithcare and Sharon Cooper.

    Video by Flip, operated by @neecouk. Background laughter by @brianhoadley.

    Audioblogging via Audioboo.

    My hair by Phil Spector.

    Thank you all and goodnight.

    The ABC of crowdsourcing in a crisis

    Miscommunication is as old as communication. The dark side of all interconnectivity is its power to transmit the salacious, the fictitious, the misguided – often virally, often uncontrollably.

    From the very first email: “virus warning, tell all your friends” there’s been natural – if unfortunate – exploitation of the very human wish to help, collaborate and communicate.

    When this happens on Twitter, one big difference is that the explosion of communication happens much more quickly. Real-time response can of course be highly desirable. If you’ve just lost your child in a crowded train station, for example.

    Yesterday, this tweet sparked an avalanche of retweets, alerting hundreds (maybe even thousands?) that a 7 year old girl had been lost.

    If you’re a parent, it’s probably happened to you. The most awful feeling. That paralysis, that fear: Where do I get help? Do I stay put? Do I run wildly around searching? In which direction? Who should I tell? Should I make a sudden, very un-British public demonstration of the situation?

    There are no perfect answers – but clearly in this case the report was serious enough to have already got to SE1, and the tweeting began.

    I was heading across the river towards Waterloo anyway that afternoon, and kept my eyes open for a child as described. Probably many others did, or gave it some thought. Crowdsourcing at its best – unorganised, viral, organic, with a unifying purpose, but nothing else by way of structure to get in the way… Remember #uksnow? ;-)

    As I walked, I thought about whether there was a ‘best practice’ to using social media like this – every instinct telling me that ‘central places to report’, a #lostchild hashtag convention, a systematic urban-grid-search-plan with real-time mapping (thanks to @adrianshort for that) probably all had as many drawbacks and impracticalities as they’d offer by way of benefit. Nice intellectual exercise though.

    Eventually I asked one of the British Transport Police on the station if “the child was still lost” – and got the answer: “oh, the 7 year old, no she’s been found”. Which was enough to assure me that we were communicating about the same thing, and I had enough confidence to tweet this as an update, (which did get RT’d but probably with less gusto than the original alert). And I notified SE1 so that they could update their site (which they did in a slightly curious way).

    So, digesting all this, I offer the following suggestion on ‘good’ – not ‘perfect’ – handling of incidents like this.

    A: Authority. What authority are you drawing on for your information? “a friend of a friend says that this new virus threat is…” wasn’t good enough to spam all your friends, and it’s not good enough for a RT, imho. So, rule of thumb: if your source is more ‘official’ or evidently better connected on the ground than you are (yellow jackets, radios or established websites are pretty good indicators here), then this becomes your Authority; just make sure you reference it.

    B: Broadcast. If you have confidence in your source, tell your networks. That’s what they’re there for.

    C: Close the loops. Perhaps the most important bit, but guaranteed to be the one that gets missed the most. With your broadcasting comes a responsibility: either to follow up and update yourself, or to transmit an update that you hear of (based on a suitable Authority, of course) to your network in just the same way as you’d broadcast the alert. In some ways the closure is just as important as the alert – it builds credibility around the whole communication process.

    With crowdsourcing, no one’s in charge. No one ‘owns’ an incident. All information has some inaccuracy, and risk. Fictitious children will be searched for, and sacks of postcards delivered to an address down the road from where a child recovered from cancer five years ago.

    But think A, B, C next time you pass on something. Particularly if it’s as emotive and real as a lost little girl.

    Twitter for absolute beginners

    I’ve been asked the same few questions by so many friends now, I thought I’d share what worked for me in 10 easy tips:

    1. It’s not like Facebook or LinkedIn – there are no easy hooks like old friendship or job networks that give you a quick start – you have to do some work yourself to start things off, but it gets easier once you have some momentum.

    2. Your profile: entirely up to you whether you use your real pic or a memorable avatar. Likewise your name or a catchy pseudonym. My network has a complete mixture, and I love them all as they are ;-)

    3. Start by dedicating a couple of hours to building your first network. Aim to follow around 100-200 people who might be interesting. But how do you find them? Well, find some that you know already using “Find People” (who springs to mind as a likely socially-networked type?), and follow who they follow. If you don’t know anyone, search for topics that interest you: ‘Search’ is hidden way down on the Twitter.com bottom menu bar. Who’s tweeted about it? Follow them.

    4. Throw away any preconceptions about ‘following’ being like ‘Add Friend’ on Facebook. Following/unfollowing has less emotional baggage than Facebook friendships – people don’t think it intrusive if you follow, or get too curious as to why; occasionally you’ll get a nice, “@ message me to tell me why you followed me” response, but this is just a low-key way of determining what networking approach is working for them. So follow freely. Sometimes people use Qwitter to report when you stop following them. I don’t. Judge for yourself whether you want to rake over the reasons for every ‘un-follow’ or just let them go. (Tip: the latter will make you happier.)

    5. Look for the thought leaders [ghastly phrase, but there it is] in whatever space it is that you’re interested. You might know them already, or find them through searching, but here’s a top tip for expanding your network. Go to tweetstats.com. Put in a Twitter username that seems like a good one you’d follow. After a while (zzzzzz) you’ll get a chart (the bottom left one) of the top 10 people that person regularly corresponds with. So there’s 10 more people for you to follow straight away. Repeat as required.

    6. Keep your updates visible to all until you have a reason not to.

    7. Do put something in your profile! You’ll probably get a few follows in return for all the following you’ve done under the instructions above – your chances of this will be much greater if you give people a clue who you are and what you’re interested.

    8. Follow back those who follow you (when that starts happening) – not just good etiquette, but essential, particularly in your early days. It shows you are interacting, and allows people to DM (direct message) you. Except if they’re spammers (you’ll know when they are – their tweets will be a deluge of links, ‘viral video’ entreaties, and in some cases avatars featuring ladies in unseasonal dress). But don’t block them straight away. Your number of followers will to some extent show the casual observer that you’re actually interacting, so use the unlikely gift the spammers have given you. At first. Once you’re rolling, block them with impunity.

    9. Target some of your tweets at specific people. But how do you actually send a message to someone? (How many times have I been asked this one?!) Simple: just include @theirusername anywhere in your tweet. Twitter is a really simple way of gathering lots of 140-character-or-less messages so that clever things can be done to give them a structure to make them collectively useful. The clever bit happens because @xxxxx and #yyyyyy in the tweets can be used by your client (the program to access Twitter on your PC or mobile) to bring together relevant messages: in the former case relating to a particular user; in the latter, to a particular topic. Once people are following you, you can Direct Message them – but only they will see the message. Try that once you have some followers, but remember the real value comes from the open cross-pollination of messages. So @ messages will be much more beneficial to you in your early days.

    10. Use hashtags. A hashtag is just a word or phrase (with no spaces), preceded by a hash (#) sign. Anyone can create one, just by typing the # sign and whatever you want it to be called. Basically, it then works like a web link: when you click on the hashtag phrase you effectively perform a mini-search for all tweets containing that hashtag (without having to go to the Search function, which would also work the same way). It’s a quick and easy way to bring content together on a particular theme. Very useful for conferences or silly word games (#cheesefilms etc.) Because anyone can create a hashtag, no one really “owns” them as such. They can be used, and misused, spammed or fought over. See here for a cautionary tale.

    I’ll leave it there. I haven’t covered retweeting (RT), how often you should tweet, what to tweet(!), what client to use, or a bunch of other things. Because if it’s working for you, you’ll work it out for yourself. Do ask me (email p@ulclarke.com – or with a comment here – or by tweeting @paul_clarke) for advice. Or ask the Twitterverse. It’s a pretty friendly place, and you’ll make a lot more connections than you’d imagine. And don’t get hung up if it doesn’t work for you. It’s not for everyone. (It took me 9 months of not-tweeting-and-just-being-mildly-curious to realise it probably was for me.)

    Baptism of snow

    An interesting few days.

    Saturday spent with like-minded public information enthusiasts exploring new ways of using and reusing information here. Not just for the sake of it, but in pursuit of better services, engagement and communities.

    Sunday, resting and getting over it, this happens while I’m making lunch. A real-life case study in the power of information – unfolding as I watched.

    Monday, trying to forget about the snow this happens.

    And Tuesday, this [Note: now broken link to a defunct alpha demonstrator of an aggregation/crowdsourcing application that allowed schools to be found, and their closure status checked/updated] appears. Sure, it needs lots of work on the basics of data, presentation, integrity and reliability. That can come in time. But its existence demonstrates an attitude, not a magic solution to a very difficult information challenge. It’s out there for review and comment by those better qualified than me. The best place for discussing it is here.

    Blimey, what’s going on? It’s also not yet a week since the publication of the Digital Britain report and the issue of the Power of Information recommendations as a beta for open comment.

    This is quite a lot to happen in one week, even given an environment of social media and digital innovation.

    There are some themes running through all of this. The power of information seems to be gaining force as a meme. Things don’t have to be done as they always have been. The power of the crowd can add value, and isn’t necessarily something to be afraid of. Mixed models – the ordered and structured alongside the spontaneous and even quirky – might solve old problems in new ways.

    Above all, the role of passion and enthusiasm to see things change. And to make things happen. Even if that means at breakneck pace, cutting a few corners and taking some risks.

    And even while snowbound. It’s been a great few days. I’m loving the ride.